Revision 2.1 “The Arabs before Islam”

Revision 2.1 “The Arabs before Islam” July 18, 2020


A political map of the Arabian Peninsula
A political map of the modern Arabian Peninsula (Wikimedia Commons)


The first question that comes up when we begin to discuss “the Arabs” is what, exactly, we mean by the term Arab. As the word is used today, it refers to people whose primary language is Arabic. This Semitic language, a relative of Hebrew, is the native language of at least three hundred million people and is the official tongue of countries from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west. The largest Arabic-speaking country is Egypt. Even in Israel, Arabic, along with Hebrew, is one of the official national languages. This linguistic definition means that many Arabs are Christians. There’s no religious requirement, no necessity of being a Muslim, in order to be an Arab. It also means that most of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. The Persians, for instance, who are better known to us today as Ira­nians, are overwhelmingly more or less devout Muslims but are not Arabs in any sense. In fact, their language is distantly related to English. (The Persian synonym for the English word bad, for instance, is bad, which seems rather closely related. The Persian equivalent of English father is padar; the equivalent of English mother is madar; and brother, in Persian, is biradhar.)[1] The Turks are Muslims but aren’t Arabs. Neither are the large Muslim populations of Pakistan, China, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Malaysia, the former Soviet Union, and many other nations. The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, which isn’t Arab at all.

The important thing to note here is that calling someone an “Arab” today doesn’t necessarily say a great deal about his or her lineage. The Arabs of northwest Africa, presumably, have a far dif­ferent genealogy than do the Arabs of Yemen or of Syria, fully a conti­nent away. The notion that there might be no genealogical significance at all to the term Arab may come as something of a shock to many Latter-day Saints, who’ve been raised on the notion that the Arabs are the descen­dants of Abraham’s son Ishmael. But to say that there’s no genealogical aspect to “Arabness” wouldn’t be quite accurate, either.  There is a connection between the Arabs and Ishmael. But we must be precise in the way we talk about it.

The Egyptians, as I’ve already noted, represent the largest national population of Arabs in the world. Yet the Egyptians of today are virtually all direct descendants of the ancient people who built the pyramids and the great temples at Luxor and Karnak, and those people weren’t Arabs. How we account for this fact will help to explain what I mean when I say that the Arabs’ descent from Ish­mael must be carefully qualified. The original home of the Arabs is the area known as the Arabian Peninsula, occupied today by such states as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. While the Arabs were confined within their original homeland, the Egyptians remained clearly non-Arab, as did the populations of Iraq and Morocco. It was only when the Arabs, inspired by the call of Islam, poured out of the peninsula, across North Africa, and up into Meso­potamia, when they occupied those lands and began to intermarry with the local populations, and when their Arabic began to be the language of everyday speech in the conquered territories that those areas beyond the peninsula came to be “Arab” in the modern sense.

A useful way of distinguishing between the original more-or-less pure Arabs of the peninsula and the Arabs of today is to call the former peoples “Arabian.” These are the people who actually lived in the Arabian Peninsula. The subsequent conquests and intermingling, which we’ll discuss more fully hereafter, mean that “Arabian blood” is to be found throughout the Arab world. But it also means that, for many areas, and especially for the outlying ones, the lineage of Ishmael is probably not the dominant bloodline in the general population.

Arabia is the largest peninsula in the world, covering almost a million square miles, which makes it roughly one third the size of the continental United States. It’s a rectangle, bound on the west by the Red Sea, on the south by the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and on the east by the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf (to which the Arabs generally refer as the Arabian Gulf). On the north, the geo­graphical boundary is less decisive, merely the Euphrates River, and there Arabia meets the modern states of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Since it’s bound on three sides by seas and on the north by a river, the pen­insula is known to the Arabs themselves as jazirat al-‘Arab, “the Island of the Arabs.”[2]

Talk of an island should not, of course, mislead anybody into thinking that Arabia is moist or green. The area in the southern por­tion of the peninsula known as “the empty quarter” is the largest con­tinuous area of sand in the world. Parts of it receive rain only once every ten years. To the north is another great sandy desert, the Nufud, which some readers will remember from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. When we say that most of Arabia is desert, we mean that it’s truly and absolutely desert. The dry areas of the United States sometimes look almost like tropical rain forests by comparison. This astonishing desolation, coupled with the area’s remoteness—which is still pretty much the case today, as America and its allies learned in the difficult process of trying to get men and material into Saudi Arabia in connection with two wars in the Persian Gulf—meant that the Arabs had the peninsula essentially to themselves. Occasionally, outsiders would try to take control of a part of the area, but they were virtually never successful. A Roman expedition, for example, met with disaster in Arabia under the command of Aelius Gallus in 25 B.C.

But why would anybody want to take over so inhospitable a place? An understanding of the area is necessary before the answer is clear.


[1]. On the other hand, the Persian equivalent of English sister is khwahar.  We’re talking about a foreign language, after all.

[2]. Hence the name of the Al Jazeera Media Network, which is based in Doha, Qatar.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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